Though Mary Chesnut occasionally wrote about Queen Victoria, her more colorfully written royal gossip centered on Louis Napoleon and Eugenie, the Emperor and Empress of France.
Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Napoleon (aka Napoleon III) presided as the first president of France from 1848 to 1852 and then created the last French monarchy which lasted from 1852 to 1870. In 1853, he married Eugenie de Montijo; three years later their only surviving child was born. However, Napoleon III’s love affairs created continual scandal and helped foster the rumors that the son was not Eugenie’s…gossip that made it into Mary Chesnut’s journal with a note on women’s fashion, too.
December 30, 1861.
More gossip of the crowned heads—Mrs. Huger says a Frenchman told her the Prince Royal was an imperial necessity—a suppositious heir—better than none. Eugenie introduced hoopskirts to hide a lack, not an exuberance, of figure.
Empress Eugenie was known for her kindness, charitable deeds, and advocacy for women’s rights in the mid-19th Century. She set fashion trends in Europe which also influenced the styles adopted across the pond.
February 17, 1862.
Mrs. Preston says it is expensive, educating a large family abroad. The Mannings were with them, too, making, in all, four girls and five boys. Still, she thought they had better spend their own money that way than any other.
She described Eugenie, the empress. One day she saw her create a street sensation.
A carriage was smashed, the horse ran away, a crowd collected. The inmates of the the carriage were picking themselves up and being inspected to see how much or how little they were hurt. When with a great clatter the empress’s carriage [came] flashing along, it drew up, and she sent an equerry to inquire if anyone had been hurt. This delighted the mob, and they began shouting, “vive ’emperatrice.”
Mrs. Preston said she saw the face of that beautiful woman—sad yet smiling—as she bowed low, right and left. She fell quite in love with that graceful, kindly creature. She wore that day, for the street, a simple dress. Muslin and silk mantilla—English straw bonnet. She saw her very often afterward—once in the spring, with bunches of violets in her bonnet, &c&c. And everybody else seemed to do so, too.
Napoleon the Great when he was about to depart for Elba told them he would be back with the violets. So when he came, they went to meet him with violets in their hands. In Paris they said the Prince Imperial was the emperor’s child, and she accepted the cheat to avoid Josephine’s fate.
Mrs. Preston delighted to watch this little personage from her window. His behavior was inimitable sometimes. Bowing politely, when he was told, to the crowds on the sidewalks &c&c. Oftener he kicked and fought, being tired of it—clutched his nurses, screaming, “Je ne veaux pas,” as any spoiled child would most naturally do.
Mary Chesnut knew French history and frequently referenced Napoleon Bonaparte in her journal, usually in military references. In the February entry, though, she hinted at the supposed scandal over the royal heir again, referencing Bonaparte’s first wife—Josephine—who was sent away after she was unable to have children, suggesting that Eugenie had compromised to avoid that fate. However, most historians accept the accounts that the prince was Eugenie’s son and that she had suffered a particularly difficult childbirth.
At one point in her journal, Mary wished that she would be appointed ambassador to France for the Confederacy, convinced that she could have personally influenced the situation. At first glance it seems improbable, but Eugenie had started taking a significant role influencing French foreign policy and it’s just possible that the Southern lady and French empress might have reached an agreement and got the men to the diplomatic table. But that never happened, and Mary Chesnut watched other Southerners head for Europe in unsuccessful diplomatic missions, trying to bring France or England into the war on the Confederacy’s side.
A little less than a month after the gossip column on the empress, Mary recorded the cold-shoulder treatment for the South from Europe:
March 5, 1862.
Lord Lyons has gone against us. Lord Derby and Louis Napoleon are silent in our hour of direst need.
A moment of hopes for France were raised and then quickly ruined as McClellan’s army circled closer to Richmond.
June 16, 1862.
Somebody rushed in to tell us. Wade Hampton, who came home (wounded) last night, says: “France has recognized us. Now, that is a sure thing.”
Louis Napoleon does not stop at trifles. He never botches his work; he is thorough. The coup d’etat, par example. So we hope [he] will not help us with a half-hand.
And now, not a word of all this is true. Wade Hampton is here, shot in the foot, but he knows no more about France than he does of the man in the moon. Wet blanket he is just now.
Interestingly, General Grant got compared to the French emperor, but not very favorably:
January 1, 1864.
“He is their man, a bullheaded Suwarrow. He don’t care a snap if they fall like the leaves fall. He fights to win, that chap. he is not distracted by a thousand side issues. He does not see them. He is narrow and sure, sees only in a straight line.”
“Like Louis Napoleon—from a bath in the gutters, he goes straight up.”
And, finally, in the final months of the war, Mary Chesnut circled back to blaming Britain’s Prince Albert (now deceased three years) for keeping France from aiding the Confederacy:
February 8, 1865
“The U.S.A. is England’s sole real rival on earth. Some day she will bitterly repent her lost opportunity. This was her chance to cripple her mortal foe.”
Mr. Clay, who has been in Canada, says we have to thank Prince Albert for that. Without his opposition, the emperor [Louis Napoleon] would have moved up to us….
Mr. Clay said: “We have the sympathy of Europe—nothing more. We will have to paddle our own canoe.” But he did not discuss public affairs if he could help it. He preferred to narrate his shipwrecks and his hairbreadth escapes. By that token I know, in his mission abroad he had no luck whatever.
If we conclude that a writer’s scribblings reveal their interests, then Mary Chesnut was significantly more interested in France’s royal family and saw France as the European power most likely to aid the Confederacy. Perhaps the memories of France aiding the colonies during the American Revolution or the impressive military legacy and legend of Napoleon added to her intrigue. Mary’s writing of rumors and royal gossip lends a unique record of how one woman in the south considered the Napoleon dynasty and cherished hopes for help from France for the floundering Confederacy.